Evandro Sudré

Shirley Fiske chaired the American Anthropological Association’s Global Climate Change Task Force and was lead author of the group’s final report, Changing the Atmosphere: Anthropology and Climate Change, that just came out. Anthropologists are studying climate change, as well as the energy and environmental policies being made in response; the report makes an important contribution to anthropological efforts to study climate policies and the policy process.

Judi Pajo (JP): The report critiques key concepts in policy documents: adaptation, vulnerability, and resilience. Can you elaborate on one of them?

Shirley Fiske (SF): Yes, the task force is critical of key concepts of climate change policy (see Section 4) as currently defined by the IPCC and implemented through the UNFCC and multilateral funding in nations around the world. The concepts of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability, with roots in the ecological and social sciences have become explicit international policy providing normative guidelines for adaptation projects and actions. The problem is that the underlying assumptions of the policies are never exposed and questioned, so as they are, they point to particular things and ignore others. “Adaptation,” as used in climate change policy, is based on an assumption of metrics and being able to measure the results of projects. They tend to focus on national-level projects and infrastructure that will theoretically allow for adaptation on large scales (often large dams and energy infrastructure). They ignore the “soft” nature of adaptation (for “well-being”) and ignore the need for varying scales of adaptation, or community agency in selecting appropriate and contextually based adaptation strategies on the ground level for marginal and underserved communities. They do not foster changes in the structural relations surrounding communities, simply getting them to prepare and adapt to the physical parameters of projected climate change (“coping” with climate change).

“The concepts of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability, with roots in the ecological and social sciences have become explicit international policy providing normative guidelines for adaptation projects and actions.”

Take “vulnerability,” for example: the original sense of vulnerability was exposure to physical elements and risk, whether flooding or a volcanic explosion. It has been an uphill struggle over decades to include the notion of social vulnerability (which finally includes socio-demographics); and has been even harder to get policymakers to include and address the underlying structural and historical conditions that lead to vulnerability. To be successful, adaptation projects for drought and desertification, water management, agricultural diversification, or disaster risk reduction all need to account for and address the underlying reasons why communities or regions are vulnerable.

JP: You have policy experience, and the report talks about embedding ethnographers in climate science and policy contexts. How do you envision fieldwork in policy fields?

SF: In section 6 the report talks about the roles that anthropologists can play as “collaborators in the production of interdisciplinary research,” and “as embedded ethnographers in the worlds of climate science, policy and politics.” I have been embedded in the policy processes in both legislative and executive branches for twenty years now and consider it an area of fieldwork; case studies and longitudinal trends become my data. A good example is the examination of the evolution of a domain of policy such as energy policy or US climate change policy which I have written about from an embedded position. But I also see another model for fieldwork in policy fields: Myanna Lahsen, for example, has done incredibly insightful research on climate modelers, climate scientists, and climate policy from her position “embedded” in a national atmospheric research center based in Colorado.

JP: I am teaching a new course at Pace that touches on the same themes. I want to assign the report. What would be the most important points that would want to communicate to the undergraduate audience?

SF: This is a great challenge. The most important points are also the ones that are unique to our anthropological discipline and approach—that distinguish us from how sociologists, psychologists and natural scientists see climate change. Since I have limited space, I am only going to mention three of them, but please see our “Statement on Climate Change and Humanity” on the AAA website. We hope it engenders much discussion!

1) First is the long perspective that anthropologists and archaeologists bring to understanding human evolution, migration, florescence and adaptation. Under conditions of climate stress, some peoples survived, changed, adapted, or declined. The lessons emerging now are about complex adaptive systems and the need for flexible, diverse systems.

2) The drivers of climate change are, ultimately, cultural behaviors, decisions, and actions. Cultural values and behavior are driving climate change—not emissions, populations, and land use changes.

3) Anthropology rises above other disciplines in the amount of attention we put on unevenness of impacts of climate change. While it’s been said in other places that the most marginal and vulnerable people, and smallest contributors to climate change, will be affected the most by impacts of climate change, anthropologists say it more often and have more evidence that shows the distributional effects of the impacts.

“From the perspective of the task force, the primary C is Culture. None of the other Cs are independent variables. Culture drives everything in the Anthropocene.”

JP: By the way, what do you think of my course’s title: “Cows, Crops, Carbon and Culture”? It’s about culture in the anthropocene.

SF: I like the title very much and can see the interrelationships among all the “Four C’s”. From the perspective of the task force, the primary C is Culture. None of the other Cs are independent variables. Culture drives everything in the Anthropocene. (Note that it hasn’t been decided by the geologists yet if we actually are in a new period. They have to decide by 2016. Keep your eyes open!)

JP: What do you recommend we do after reading the report? If the “promise of science-driven, global approaches to govern the atmospheric commons through GHG emissions reductions” has virtually failed, what is next? What would be the terms of the emerging debate of transitioning to a low-carbon society?

SF: What next? Well, there still is COP21 in Paris and we should not give up on a global strategy to reduce emissions. But the next steps are a pivot to community engagement and local action. The terms of debate in transitioning to a low-carbon society are being defined more clearly every day. For one thing, you see an entrenching of interests by oil companies and utilities as they reject divesting their coal portfolios. They are literally digging in. Coal-producing states such as West Virginia and Kentucky are stridently protecting their payloads and point fingers at publics who demand renewable energy as the perpetrators of economic depression in coal-belt communities. I see the promotion of transnational oil and gas pipelines by multinational corporations (for export, no less) as a desperate attempt to sustain the fracking boom profits even as oil prices drop; and to use the small amount of employment generated as leverage with the American public, studiously overlooking the boom and bust cycles that rip apart communities. As anthropologists we can monitor and study the actions of power companies and their holdings and the become activists (or document them) trying to create renewable energy utilities—this is one pillar of the debate in transitioning to carbon. I recommend reading Section 6.3.5 in our Report for additional vantage points on “The Cultural Politics of Decarbonization” with some surprising insights.

This article originally appeared in Anthropology News and is reprinted here with permission.

Image — source.

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